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A fading old soldier

Times Staff Writer

The veterans are withdrawing from Patriotic Hall.

For the first time in 80 years, this looming historic building in downtown Los Angeles -- once hailed as the grandest veterans memorial building in the nation -- will stand empty.

Los Angeles County, which owns the building, is studying whether to remodel the neo-Italian Renaissance-style hall on South Figueroa and 18th streets, long the home of veteran services and social groups. Now the groups’ offices and records have been moved elsewhere.

Among the last to leave will be former Marine Jesse J. “Jay” Morales, adjutant of American Legion Post 8, which has had an office on the eighth floor since the hall opened in September 1926. He works feverishly in the Wilson Room, sifting through cartons that bulge with yellowed letters and photographs.

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He is breathless as he tells the relics’ stories, as if they are about to vanish from his hands. He worries that the county does not realize how many military artifacts -- donated over the decades by veterans, some dating to before the Civil War -- must be moved and stored with care.

“Look at this all,” Morales says, tugging open a door to a narrow crawlspace.

Stuffed inside are old flags, oil paintings without protective casings, framed photographs with the glass shattered, an olive-colored uniform that reportedly was worn in World War I.

Many of the items once adorned the walls of the 10-story building, now called Bob Hope Patriotic Hall because the late comedian entertained troops housed here during World War II.

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As old veterans died off, the county rented space to other groups, and the military artifacts were stored out of sight.

Morales says that items are missing, including hundreds of framed photographs of county veterans.

He cannot find a grand old flag, 36 feet wide and 18 feet high, that in 1958 was called the largest in county service. It hung like a giant curtain on the hall’s auditorium stage. No formal inventory was kept, said building manager Jim Meyers. County officials say they are hiring an expert to sort through the artifacts and will pay for storage space. County staff and project consultants are to meet with veterans today to discuss their plans.

The staff is aware of veterans’ concerns, said Jan Takata, assistant division chief in the county’s chief administrative office, which is overseeing the project

Takata said he could not “speak to how artifacts were preserved or not preserved in the past.”

“We’re making every effort to do it appropriately. We’ve tried to assure them that we’re going to treat [the artifacts] very carefully, very respectfully.”

Told of the missing flag, he said the county is trying to locate it.

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Morales, 64, has loved the hall ever since he was a boy in the mid-1950s, and his World War II veteran father brought him there to see the marble-floored lobby with its vaulted arches and its walls hung with gilt-framed paintings of famous generals.

When he returned from combat in Vietnam, Morales found a haven in the upstairs offices filled with veteran services, clubs and American Legion posts. He applied for the GI Bill there, and got counseling for his first home loan on the second floor.

Now, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has authorized a study to determine whether it should undertake a three-year, $43-million renovation of the structure.

“The condition of the hall is generally good, and its historic integrity is high,” a 2002 study found. But it still has its original boilers and no central air conditioning. Some overhead lights flicker or won’t turn on at all. Pipes need to be replaced and asbestos removed.

Renovations would also make the hall more attractive to outside groups, which increasingly have been renting space there as veterans groups dwindle. Among those expressing interest is USC, which is seeking closer ties to downtown, county staff said.

Two weeks ago, the county Department of Military and Veteran Affairs, which runs the building, moved to another county building, along with a handful of veteran groups.

Morales and other veterans leaders are worried that the county may become so enamored of the money to be made from renting space in the hall that veterans will never be allowed to move back in. County officials, however, say that won’t happen.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky proposed at an Oct. 10 Board of Supervisors meeting that instead of approving the renovation, which would include a 400-space parking garage, the board spend $165,000 to study whether the county should renovate the building at all. He chided the staff for not looking at alternatives and asked if it would be feasible for veterans to move to another, cheaper site, according to a transcript of the meeting. Yaroslavsky did not return phone calls seeking comment for this report.

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State law stipulates that a county cannot change the use of veterans memorial buildings, such as Patriotic Hall, unless veterans vacate the site. So the supervisors’ motion states that the veterans will return, and American Legion Post 8 has passed a resolution saying, “It is NOT the intention of Los Angeles Post No. 8 to abandon or permanently vacate this veterans’ memorial structure.”

Still, Morales is nervous. Real estate in the area is increasing in value, he said. He fought successfully to save Patriotic Hall in the 1980s when the county considered tearing it down.

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Over eight decades, Patriotic Hall, which stands out in a one- and two-story neighborhood, has faded from the public consciousness.

Most drivers who see it while navigating the junction of the Harbor and Santa Monica freeways have no way of knowing the history of the lone building with its rococo flourishes and Corinthian-style columns as well as its Revolutionary War soldiers painted on the outside.

Yet when it was dedicated in February 1926, everybody in Los Angeles seemed to know about it.

Representatives of 59 veterans groups joined the mass of people who filled the then 1,000-seat auditorium and spilled onto the surrounding sidewalks, The Times reported in a story about the dedication.

The structure was the tallest in the city at the time. Unlike so many Los Angeles buildings of the era, it escaped being torn down or drastically remodeled in the 1950s and ‘60s. Instead, the high ceilings and ornate ironwork have the air of Renaissance Italy. The worn wooden floors are Ozark oak from Arkansas.

Although most area residents have never entered the building, they have seen its interiors at the movies.

The stairwell appeared in the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock thriller “Vertigo,” and the Nimitz Room in the 1983 film “Flashdance.” Crews have filmed there for more than 300 movies.

The one veterans know best is the 1970 film “Patton,” with its famous opening speech by actor George C. Scott in the title role, standing in front of a giant American flag.

The scene was filmed in the Patriotic Hall auditorium, and the lore goes that the flag behind him was the one believed to be missing.

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The ranks of the American Legion have thinned rapidly in the years since the Vietnam War. World War II veterans are said to be dying at a rate of 1,000 a day. Many Gulf War and Iraq War veterans never joined at all.

Some Legion posts disbanded, leaving artifacts in the hall. Rooms were rented to the Los Angeles Unified School District, religious groups, wedding parties and quinceaneras. Youth groups used the gymnasium and a Korean church moved into the auditorium.

Rentals raised more than $230,000 for the general fund last year -- money that some veterans think should have gone toward refurbishing the hall.

Veterans say that as they prepared for the move last summer, they found more antiques than they anticipated in corners and closets of the 115,000-square-foot building.

The 10th-floor crawl space contained items from several wars, including a Civil War flag from the 14th Ohio Infantry that is believed to have hung in the offices of the late county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn.

The flag was undamaged, despite decades in a building without air conditioning, said Glen L. Roosevelt, a Marine veteran whose great-grand-uncle fought in the Civil War.

Roosevelt, commander of an Orange County-based group, Camp 17 of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, estimated that volunteers from his organization have spent 500 hours gathering artifacts for the move.

“We’ve got to get Patriotic Hall back to the grand artifact that it was back in 1926,” he said. “We’ve got to move forward so that when we’re not here anymore, the generation after us will have this example of our history.”

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deborah.schoch@latimes.com

Times researchers Julia Franco and John Tyrrell contributed to this report.


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